Louisiana law provides that specified violent crimes allow the district attorney to remove a juvenile offender from juvenile court – where the maximum sentence is up to the offender’s 21st birthday – and try them as an adult and face adult prison sentences. These crimes include murder, attempted murder, rape and armed robbery. When I was elected district attorney at the end of 2015, there were two minors who faced such consequences. In 2016, my first full year as district attorney, there were four such minors; in 2017 there was one; in 2018 there were three (the year I note we started to see a slight increase in youth crime with guns and gangs); in 2019, there were four. And then came the pandemic. Suddenly we’ve had 11 such transfers in 2020, 10 in 2021 and five so far in 2022.
This trend of a sudden 2020 spike in violent criminal offenses committed by minors in Louisiana directly reflects a 2020 spike in truancy cases across our state.
Six years ago, the Caddo Parish District Attorney’s Office, in conjunction with Volunteers for Youth Justice (VYJ), Caddo Parish Schools and with financial assistance from Mr. James Elrod, then CEO of Willis-Knighton Health System, launched an initiative to address rising school truancy rates through direct intervention with the family through VYJ truancy officers and the school principal, rather than fill the justice system with absentee families.
The number of absenteeism from school fell immediately, for primary school students from just under 1,500 in 2016 to just 25 in 2019. This was largely due to greater coordination between educators, court authorities for minors, children’s advocates and the prosecutor’s office through the creation of the assessment of school absenteeism. and Service Center, or TASC, designed to focus on truancy issues for children in kindergarten through 5th grade. He identified absentee families early on and provided rapid assessment and services to reduce school absences. It also allowed the school board to marshal its limited number of attendance staff to focus its efforts on middle and high school students.
Then the pandemic hit. Students have been asked to work virtually from home via laptops, and all progress on this has been halted.
There are approximately 32,000 public school students in Caddo Parish. In the past school year, more than 1,500 students in grades 6-12 missed more than 25 days of school, and more than 3,500 in kindergarten through 5 missed more than 10 days. Caddo Parish Director of Juvenile Services Clay Walker. He sees a correlation between the explosion of school absenteeism and the pandemic. “(The families) didn’t have computers or reliable internet connections,” he said. “They didn’t know how to connect their child to school. They were just struggling to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads. Unfortunately, after more than a year, they lost the habit of going to school. These are kids who haven’t turned on a computer for over a year. They did not attend any school for over a year.
“The recent increase in school absenteeism is due to the pandemic, which led to the closure of schools in March 2020 and the return to virtual school in August 2020,” said Kelli Todd, Executive Director of Volunteers for Youth Justice . “A large number of students did not return to school in August 2020, citing the pandemic as the cause and instead either did not attend at all or opted to enroll in virtual classes. Many of these families n didn’t have technology or the internet and didn’t consider school an important factor due to COVID concerns.Many of these students never logged into the system to get assignments and never contacted school. “school. We’ve seen a significant number of students go from an AB student to a failing student because they weren’t going to school.”
Additionally, to combat truancy, Caddo Parish Juvenile Judge Natalie Howell identifies a great need for free tutoring services to be offered as so many children have fallen behind on their grades. basic education. To ensure that preschool and elementary students attend school regularly and develop the habit of going to school, she believes that students and their families must be well equipped to succeed.
“People who come before me cannot afford private lessons,” Judge Howell said. “If a parent cannot read, he cannot teach (his child) to read. of Caddo, and I was looking for months.”
Most parents want their children to be educated and in a safe environment, says Mary Nash-Wood, executive director of Caddo Parish Public Schools Strategic Initiatives.
“But,” she adds, “they may not always be aware of what their child is doing at any given time or the impact of absenteeism on their child’s education.”
There are a number of reasons for absenteeism, Nash-Wood said. These include homelessness and/or mobility issues and poverty, as well as other reasons. These include:
- Parents don’t know there are attendance requirements as part of student registration
- Mental illness of child and/or parent/guardian
- School-family relationship issues
- The parent did not know that the child was not going to school, for example when a parent wakes the child to go to school and then goes to work believing that the child is going
- The child helps to take care of a younger sibling or other family members
- Fear of the COVID-19 virus
Walker sees today’s truancy problem as an ominous harbinger of future delinquency and criminality.
“It’s a problem for potential juvenile delinquency,” he said. “School truancy is often the first symptom of problems that lead to delinquency.”
“In 2021, only 304 children came to juvenile detention. So the relatively serious problem we have with juvenile delinquency is the work of only 304 children. There are over 5,000 children who are skipping school right now, on the wrong track. We have to deal with our truancy problem to prevent an even bigger juvenile delinquency problem in about four years.
Judge Howell observes that since the pandemic, “some people have missed almost two years of school. Many children have missed at least a year… We have to show parents that we are going to hold them accountable.
Clay Walker agrees. “As was the case in 2016, most parents (of truant children) want their children to go to school. They need help to get there. But there were the 25 families who still had to be seized by the Court (in 2019) to solve the problem. The plan will now have serious consequences, including jail time, for parents who disregard the help offered and contribute to their child’s truancy.
Students and their families have become accustomed to not going to school and seeing no consequences, says Kelli Todd.
“We need to empower parents more,” she said. “They are primary school students and it is their fault that their children are not in school.
“We are tackling truancy as best we can and have secured funding to hire additional truancy officers for the coming year,” Todd said. “But once we bring the family to justice, there must be a bigger consequence for the parent.”
So this summer and this school year, my office has taken action to address this issue, which incorrigible parents will be held accountable for.
To that end, I am announcing that effective immediately, our new Shreveport City Marshal, James Jefferson, has agreed to have his deputies perform child protection checks on addresses that the school system has identified to us. for children who do not go to school. I am also ending the amnesty given that the past school year was intended to allow absent parents to pull themselves together and get their children back to school. We identify custodial parents of Caddo Parish Public School students who are truant with significant numbers of wrongful absences who ignore court orders to cooperate with juvenile court truancy efforts and court orders court to bring their children to school.
I have dedicated an assistant district attorney with the primary responsibility of bringing these parents to court to deal with the consequences with the juvenile judge for the parent’s non-compliance, which can be up to 30 days in jail . This way of holding parents accountable will not lead to criminal convictions on those parents’ record, but will immediately and directly address their failure to their children and to this community to ensure their children go to school, and not not get lost in the trap of guns, gangs and violence.
Failure by parents to make efforts to send their children to school will no longer be tolerated. Please call Volunteers for Youth Justice at (318) 425-4413 or the Caddo Parish Schools Attendance Office at (318) 603-6305 with any concerns about obtaining your children or to help someone you know to ensure that their children attend school regularly.